A guide to Super Tuesday's riskiest voting machines

Six states will use paperless touch-screen machines that can't be counted by human beings. Get ready for some chaos.

Published February 5, 2008 6:35PM (EST)

As the table below illustrates, millions of voters across the country will cast their ballots into the void on Super Tuesday. Click on each state for details on the vote there.

Super Tuesday Voting Technology
State Paper trail? Audits? Risky?
Arkansas No No Yes!
Delaware No No Yes!
Georgia No No Yes!
New Jersey No No Yes!
New York No No Yes!
Tennessee No No Yes!
Alabama Yes No A Bit
Arizona Yes No A Bit
Massachusetts Yes No A Bit
Oklahoma Yes No A Bit
Utah Yes No A Bit
California Yes Yes No!
Connecticut Yes Yes No!
Illinois Yes Yes No!
Missouri Yes Yes No!

People in six states will sidle up to a voting machine and register their choices using a touch screen, a set of buttons, or an antiquated mechanical lever -- and then they'll coast on hope.

Votes on these systems -- paperless machines that produce no human-countable record of the ballot -- can never be checked. You've just got to pray that no one has hacked something, that every bug has been caught, or that voting officials haven't made some kind of egregious error. Since we know that such mistakes and attacks are possible, your prayers will be of little comfort.

It's an absurd, stupid way to vote, but if you were looking for a patch of good news on this very democratic morning, well, look here: Not every Super Tuesday voter will be treated so badly.

Since early this century, I've been reporting on the dangers of touch-screen electronic voting machines. The federal government has been painfully slow to address the problem, but in recent years many states have passed bills requiring that machines produce what's known as a "voter-verifiable paper trail" -- a record of a voter's choices that can be recounted by hand.

On Super Tuesday, many states -- including two of the biggest, California and Illinois -- will use these improved procedures.

Among the safer technologies states have adopted are optical-scan voting systems, which use paper ballots that are counted by machines. As we saw recently in New Hampshire's recount, the paper ballots can be manually counted in the event of a dispute. Some voting jurisdictions have also begun to use newer touch-screen machines that produce a verifiable paper record.

A few states have also adopted an even more stringent requirement -- that voting results compiled by computers be manually audited after every election.

This is key. New Hampshire's results proved that when computers are counting the vote, people tend to get suspicious of surprise results.

An audit provides extra assurance. Officials automatically count a random sample of the ballots to make sure that results match the computer's tally -- if not, a fuller recount may be in order.

"Risky" in the table above means unaccountable: The riskiest states have at least some machines that produce no paper trail.

Marginally risky states use machines that produce a paper trail but they do not provide for automatic audits; the paper trail can be used to check the machines, but such a check is not a standard procedure.

The safest states both require a paper trail and provide for automatic audits of that paper trail.

The riskiest states: Most of Arkansas' counties use machines that produce a paper trail, but three of them -- Columbia, Ouchita, and Union -- still use electronic machines that store voting results internally. The voter advocacy groups Common Cause and Verified Voting explain that because results in these counties could tie up results in the entire state, voting here is still a leap of faith.

Delaware, New Jersey, and Tennessee will be using a mix of paperless touch-screen and push-button electronic machines in many areas. New Jersey missed a deadline imposed by state law to replace paperless machines by January; the new deadline is June.

Georgia will be using touch-screen systems manufactured by Diebold.

Much of New York uses mechanical lever voting machines. These do not use software, but they've got the same basic weakness as paperless touch-screen machines: A voter can never be sure that the machine is recording the choices she selected.

Because all these risky states use machines that produce no verifiable paper record of the vote, audits of the vote are simply not possible in these states. If you're suspicious of the results here, well, that's too bad for you, isn't it?

The somewhat risky states: Alabama, Massachusetts and Oklahoma use paper ballots statewide (the paper ballots are counted either by hand or by optical-scan machines). None of these states, however, require an audit of the machine-counted paper ballots.

Arizona uses a mix of optical-scan and touch-screen machines that produce a paper ballot. The state also has a law on the books requiring random audits of the ballots, but according to voter advocates the law is plagued by loopholes that allowed several counties to skip such an audit in the past.

Utah uses electronic machines that do produce a paper record, but the state does not require an audit of those records.

The least risky states: California, Illinois, and Missouri use a mix of hand-counted, optical-scan, and electronic machines with a paper trail. These states also require that machine-counted ballots be audited to check the machine's tally.

Connecticut uses paper ballots everywhere -- counted by hand or by optical-scan machines -- and it requires that those ballots are audited by hand.

Oh Connecticut, would that the whole country were like you!

For more information, see the Common Cause/Voter Verified report "Voting At Risk."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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2008 Elections